Category Archives: Authenticity

How ‘Fake News’ Damages Your Company and What You Can Do About It

Since the election, the idea of “fake news” has been prominently debated. Whether from willful blindness or a general sense of gullibility, stories that appear real have spread throughout social media…but this is not a new phenomenon.

200 years ago it was reported that after cutting down a cherry tree, a six year old George Washington guiltily told his father, “I cannot tell a lie…I did cut it with my hatchet.” Similarly, Paul Revere didn’t ride through the streets of Concord, Massachusetts yelling, “The British are coming” and Isaac Newton did not discover gravity when an apple fell on his head.

While these stories are technically fake news, they are distinguished from today’s fake news in their intent. When Mason Locke Weems penned the cherry tree tale in 1806, he was trying to illustrate Washington’s virtue so as to inspire young Americans to emulate him. Elias Phinney relayed Revere’s ride as an act of patriotism. And John Conduitt used Newton’s apple story as a metaphor so the less educated could understand the concept of gravity.

The fake news in our current political climate is more in the vein of Marie Antoinette’s, “Let them eat cake.” This quote was inaccurately attributed to Antoinette when a French Revolutionary anti-establishment pamphlet distributed it as a cartoon. In publishing such an untruth, the author was not trying to generate a metaphorical narrative; rather he was seeking to fuel the insurrection and overthrow of the French government.

As Antoinette can attest, fake news is inherently destructive in nature. Whether it’s from protesters or government leaders, these stories have no purpose but to disparage those with opposing views, stoke irrational fears, and spread falsehoods. There is no way to rationalize it; if an argument is well-intentioned, the truth should be sufficient to convince the masses. If it’s not, you need a better argument.

Consider how your company reacts when a malicious rumor is started. These localized fake news stories have long lasting negative ramifications on your team. Not only are they distracting, but the fabrications harm reputations, working relationships, and the overall culture. This then affects performance, productivity, and the bottom line.

There are two action items we can learn here. One, we need to do a better job identifying and quashing fake news. If you think this sounds easy, think again. A recent Stanford study found that students cannot determine fake news from real news. This lack of critical thinking is particularly alarming considering their nonstop media consumption. Participants had a hard time distinguishing advertisements from news articles and were unable to identify where information came from. In addition, more than 80% believed a native ad identified with the words “sponsored content” was a real news story AND only 25% recognized and were able to explain the differences between a verified Twitter account and one that simply looked legitimate.

This finding indicates that students may focus more on the content of social media posts than on their sources. Despite their fluency with social media, many students are unaware of basic conventions for indicating verified digital information.—Sam Wineburg & Sarah McGrew

The second action item is that as leaders we must take responsibility for this fakery within our organizations. This begins with educating those on our team to be discernable absorbers of information. When new information is presented, teach them to evaluate it based on the following questions:

  1. Do you know the source? Is he/she reliable and trustworthy?
  2. Can you verify the information?
  3. How does it measure up to what you already know?
  4. Does it make (common) sense?
  5. Do you understand the complexity of the information?
  6. Do you understand the context of the information?
  7. What biases do you have that could affect how you interpret the information?
  8. Have subject matter experts corroborated the information? What about the company’s executive team?
  9. How current is the information?
  10. What is the intent of the person disseminating the information?

Fake news is an epidemic. Thankfully, you are in a position to be the Senior Editor of your organization’s “news” outlet. When fake news stories arise, no matter how trivial, report the truth. Don’t allow even one minor fib to become part of the dialogue. The more you practice this, the more fact-checking will become engrained in your culture.

Why Leaders Cannot Be Indifferent to the Truth: Part 3—Deceiving with Fact-based Lies

Check out Part 1 of this series where we discuss the logical fallacy of believing you are entitled to your opinion and Part 2 involving the destruction nature of alternative facts (lies).

We’ve been talking about the deceptive nature of alternative facts (i.e. lies) and their effects on the workplace; however, there are many practices beyond lies that can have equally destructive results. One of the most common is paltering.

While a lie entails either the active use of false statements (lying by commission) or holding back relevant information (lying by omission), paltering involves the use of truthful statements to influence someone’s beliefs by giving a false or distorted impression. For example, let’s say you are asked about a prior lawsuit where your company was charged with housing discrimination. You can lie, you can change the topic, or you can palter like Trump in the September 26th presidential debate:

We, along with many, many, many other companies, throughout the country—it was a federal lawsuit—were sued. We settled the suit with zero—no admission of guilt. It was very easy to do. But they sued many people.

Trump’s response is technically a truthful statement in that he did settle the suit and he did not admit guilt; however, it presents a misleading sense of innocence. In reality, Trump signed a consent decree, which included “pages of stipulations intended to ensure the desegregation of Trump properties.” And while many companies have been sued for housing discrimination, this lawsuit was 1) “squarely aimed” at Trump and 2) his company was the only one sued at that particular time.

Trump has shown that stating the aggregate truth is not one of his more predominant traits, though let’s not get too sanctimonious about our own ability to be honest. Research finds that on average, people tell one to two lies a day, most often to family members, friends, and work colleagues. These tend to be harmless white lies, but they are lies. Leaders are no different.

I’ll go into my inbox and look at an email I was supposed to reply to weeks ago. And I’ll look out the window and think about it for a few seconds, and then write, ‘I’ve been thinking about your email.’ I’m clearly creating the impression that I’ve been thinking this over for the last three weeks, when in truth I’ve been thinking about it for the last second and a half. I’m creating a false impression by telling truthful things—but yet it doesn’t feel as unethical as lying.—Todd Rogers, associate professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School

Leaders report paltering as often as they lie by omission and more often than they lie by commission. In the study, 52% stated they palter in some or most of their negotiations, whereas 21% said they lie by commission. When asked why, participants felt that paltering is more ethically acceptable than lying (by commission and by omission).

A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology went even further to say that most people who palter see nothing wrong with it. According to co-author Francesca Gino, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, “People seem to be using this strategy because in their minds, they’re telling the truth, so they think they’re being honest.” In some cases, the leader even shifts responsibility to the audience for believing what the leader said; judging the audience for not paying closer attention to what exactly was articulated.

While these leaders may erroneously take the moral high ground, that does not change the damage paltering is doing to their reputation and relationships. In the aforementioned study, they often benefit in the short term, but when the deception is exposed the recipients of paltering feel misled, code the individual as a liar, and are less likely to work with them again.

Avoid the repercussions of truth-based deceit. You may take satisfaction in your plausible deniability, but the world is a small place. People talk and you do not need a negative stigma that may likely stick far longer than you’d prefer. If you do not want to be re-branded as a con artist, in Part 4 of this series we’ll discuss what you as a leader can do to cultivate and enforce a culture that emphasizes truthful facts, truth tellers, and truth seekers.

 

The Why Leaders Cannot Be Indifferent to the Truth series:

Part 1—You are NOT Entitled to Your Opinion

Part 2—The Destructive Nature of Alternative Facts (i.e. Lies)

Part 3—Deceiving with Fact-based Lies

Part 4— 10 Ways to Create a Culture of Trust

Why Leaders Cannot Be Indifferent to the Truth: Part 2—The Destructive Nature of Alternative Facts (i.e. Lies)

Check out Part 1 of this series where we discuss the logical fallacy of believing you are entitled to your opinion.

While some leaders use their opinion as a weapon against critical thinking, there’s a dangerous new trend that reclassifies opinions as alternative facts. Just as you are not entitled to your opinion, you are not entitled to blatantly lie or recreate reality to better suit your convenience.

Alternative facts go beyond the concept of post-truth where “facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” While it may be dismissed in favor of a passion-based sentiment, at least post-truths involve a comprehension of the facts.

The concept of alternative facts became more prevalent when Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd questioned statements made by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer concerning the size of the turnout for Trump’s inauguration. When asked, Counselor to the President Kellyann Conway told Todd that Spicer was only offering alternative facts, to which Todd replied, “Alternative facts are just falsehoods.”

If audience size seems like a minor lie, you are only half wrong. Sure, there are more serious issues to lie about, but as research shows, a lie (even a small one) can have destructive effects. For now, let’s forgo the ethical argument, or the Golden Rule, or the simple societal norm that lying is bad. Instead, focus on how lies impact your employees.

According to Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert, people see the world in two steps. First, for a brief moment, we hold the lie as true: We must accept it so as to understand it. For instance, if the President were to erroneously say, “I have been on [Time magazine’s] cover, like, 14 or 15 times. I think we have the all-time record in the history of Time magazine,” we must for a second accept that he holds this record. Only then do we go to the second step—accepting or rejecting it.

While the first step happens automatically, the second step involves actively deciding whether or not to believe the statement. And too often, this mentally strenuous verification does not occur. As Gilbert writes, human minds, “when faced with shortages of time, energy, or conclusive evidence, may fail to unaccept the ideas that they involuntarily accept during comprehension.”

Based on our limited cognitive resources, when we fail to unaccept an idea, our minds have become so overwhelmed with (potentially) false statements that we stop trying to sift through to the truth. The improbability of the statement is irrelevant; with time, our brains give up trying to figure out what is true.

It’s the bed-of-nails principle: If you step on one nail, it hurts you; if you step on a thousand nails, no single one stands out, and you’re fine.—John Oliver

Since people become more susceptible to lies when they are told with higher frequency, it may sound easier to lead through lies—who doesn’t want to say whatever they want without having to defend it? Of course you will lose all credibility and quickly build a reputation of fraudulence that delegitimizes both you and your organization, but think of the time you’ll save trying to persuade the masses.

Sarcasm aside, once a group is more receptive to lies, they are more receptive to everyone’s lies, not just yours. If you aren’t so bold as to tell outright lies but do not want to be bothered with the fact-checkable truth, in Part 3 of this series we’ll discuss the effects of sprinkling your argument with a few untruths, otherwise known as paltering.

 

The Why Leaders Cannot Be Indifferent to the Truth series:

Part 1—You are NOT Entitled to Your Opinion

Part 2—The Destructive Nature of Alternative Facts (i.e. Lies)

Part 3—Deceiving with Fact-based Lies

Part 4— 10 Ways to Create a Culture of Trust

Why Leaders Cannot Be Indifferent to the Truth: Part 1—You are NOT Entitled to Your Opinion

Remember that CEO I wrote about last month whose brilliant new project was derailed because she did not provide context? There was one more interaction from her launch party that bothered me. When she was defending the company changes via her charts, graphs and other quantifiable measures, an employee responded with a dismissive, “Well, I’m entitled to my opinion.” Is this a valid response or are we enabling ignorance? <spoiler alert: the answer is #2>

Let’s begin with the understanding that “I’m entitled to my opinion” is a logical fallacy. An opinion is a judgment that inherently involves a degree of uncertainty; therefore, using it as a defense only works in select situations. For instance, you can be entitled to your opinion if we’re discussing the latest Star Wars movie. Sure, critics, friends, and sheer sensibility will tell you it’s a fantastic flick, but there is no “right” answer about such a subjective thought.

You cannot, however, harbor a valid opinion when there is a provable, objective, verifiable fact contradicting your inaccurate thoughts. Going back to our Star Wars example, regardless of whether you enjoyed it, which you did, your opinion is irrelevant when discussing whether is was profitable. A simple internet search will tell you that this is a fact. As a result, you are not “entitled” to think otherwise.

Sometimes we can disagree with the facts.—Sean Spicer, White House Press Secretary

So this leads to the next point—what if you don’t know the truth? Guess what, you still aren’t entitled to your opinion. A factually-based question demands a factually-based answer. You’re entitled to learn the truth. You’re entitled to speak with an expert. You’re entitled to pick up your smartphone and look it up. But you are not entitled to purposely remain ignorant.

When you allow your team the option of being entitled to their opinions, you are propagating a culture where thinking is optional, where individuals can reject whatever facts they do not find to be convenient or beneficial. As Deakin University philosophy professor Patrick Stokes said in a recent interview, “the problem with ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’ is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for ‘I can say or think whatever I like’ and, by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful.”

Permitting your team to be entitled to their opinion creates a false equivalence between experts and non-experts, the enlightened and the naïve. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll discuss what happens when a false opinion is turned into an “alternative fact” and how that affects your organization.

 

The Why Leaders Cannot Be Indifferent to the Truth series:

Part 1—You are NOT Entitled to Your Opinion

Part 2—The Destructive Nature of Alternative Facts (i.e. Lies)

Part 3—Deceiving with Fact-based Lies

Part 4— 10 Ways to Create a Culture of Trust